There was a time, during the American Revolution, when the abolition of slavery seemed to be just around the corner.
The Continental Army had become integrated under the leadership of George Washington, and black soldiers had continually demonstrated their valor. In Congress and among the military leaders, there was a strong assumption that emancipation must soon follow.
One giant step in this direction was Washington’s creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment. By late 1777, patriotism was waning, and the revolutionary cause was in desperate need of soldiers. While camped at Valley Forge, Washington received a message from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island. In the message, Varnum requested permission to enlist black soldiers in his home state.
With Washington’s permission, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act granting enlistment eligibility to “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian man slave.” To such, the act promised complete manumission, plus all the wages and other benefits to which any soldier was entitled. About 250 men immediately joined the First Rhode Island Regiment, which went on to fight valiantly at the Battle of Rhode Island.
Inspired by the success of the Rhode Island plan, Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina soon drafted a plan of his own. Laurens, heir to a slave-trading fortune, had become persuaded that slavery was wrong; his father Henry Laurens shared his views, and the two had discussed strategies for freeing their own slaves. Realizing that Washington’s Rhode Island plan must inevitably lead to the emancipation of Northern slaves, John hoped to accomplish the same for the South.
In the spring of 1778, John Laurens came up with a proposal to raise a force of 5,000 black soldiers who would remain slaves while in the service, and then receive their freedom at the war’s conclusion. Washington immediately approved the plan; his only regret was for the slave owners’ loss of property.
But then the senior Laurens began to have doubts, worrying that the men might not fight as long as they were still slaves. He proposed instead that they be freed immediately, then be given the choice, as free men, whether or not to serve. Given these circumstances, he presumed that most of them would choose to stay home with their families, thus defeating the stated purpose of the plan. Henry further objected on the grounds that if the proposal were made public, few would support it, and John would be exposed to ridicule. Frustrated by his father’s resistance, John Laurens put his plan aside.
By the end of the year, with Southern loyalists rallying to the British cause, the British had captured Savannah, Georgia. Rumors circulated that they were poised to take South Carolina as well. With his home state facing danger, John Laurens revived his plan for a black regiment. Encouraged by his good friend Alexander Hamilton, Laurens refined his original plan, and in March of 1779 he contacted General Washington.
Given Washington’s earlier support of his idea, and the success of the Rhode Island plan, Laurens surely expected that the commander in chief would give his endorsement. But he was disappointed.
Washington had had a change of heart. He now feared, not that the plan would not succeed,but that it would succeed too well. He seems to have feared the consequences for his own slave property. In his letter to Laurens he wrote:
“I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.”
He had realized that the existence of free black battalions would make it impossible to preserve the institution of slavery any longer. Paralyzed between financial considerations and his own conscience, he resisted a plan that might lead to the loss of his own property, despite very compelling military necessity.
The window that had opened at Valley Forge, when Washington had seen fit to include black men in the revolutionary cause, had closed again.
John Laurens did not give up. By now it was clear to everyone that emancipation, rather than enlistment, was primarily at issue. Nevertheless, some Southern leaders were willing to tolerate emancipation, simply because of the dire need for troops. Supported by powerful allies, Laurens submitted his proposal, and on March 29, 1779, the Continental Congress unanimously passed what could be called the first Emancipation Proclamation. According to the resolution, congress would compensate slave owners in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1000 apiece for every able-bodied male slave up to 35 years of age who could pass muster. At war’s end, each black soldier would be expected to turn in his arms in exchange for his freedom.
While no one expected an immediate general emancipation, the revolutionary implications of the resolution were clear to everyone. Congress was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in America.
Now all the plan needed was the consent of the Georgia and South Carolina legislatures.
Their answer was immediate. The Southern plantation owners would see their region fall to the British before they would agree to arm three thousand slaves.
As a direct result of South Carolina’s failure to produce a black regiment, Charleston fell to the British. The city was reduced to rubble, and John Laurens himself was captured and imprisoned.
He still did not give up. After being released in a prisoner exchange, he continued to promote his plan, without avail, until 1782.
America’s victory in the war for independence meant there would be no Southern emancipation for another eighty years.